JUDITH FEBRUARY: How did South Africa lose its way so badly?


In 2017, the authoritative Financial Times dedicated its editorial to South Africa. Under the damning headline, “South Africa’s descent into despotism must stop”, it was a serious indictment on the ANC and its failure of leadership under President Zuma. Then, it wrote:

“Graft has infected all levels of the state. Thanks to the courageous efforts of civil society groups such as Corruption Watch and Save South Africa, the grubby nexus between the Gupta family business empire and President Jacob Zuma’s administration has come into sharper focus.”

That was 2017 and despite some strides that have been made to deal with corruption, much still needs to be done. There is work to be done, not only to deal with corruption and ensure that criminal prosecutions follow, but also to deepen and defend our Constitution and democracy itself.

Former President Jacob Zuma and his motley crew of constitutional vandals, after all, threaten to tear down the edifice of this democracy rather than face the test of accountability. Recently, the ‘Defend our Democracy’ campaign started mobilising citizens across society to stave off the existential threats to our democracy, but also to rebuild what has been lost.

There will be many layers to the way in which our society seeks to rebuild, of course.

Firstly, we continue to ask ourselves how it is that we lost our way so badly, and how are we able to draw on the work of the transition, those early halcyon days of democracy and the constitution-making process to map our mistakes and our progress?

Now is a definitive time to be seeking to draw lessons from the past and to think about a future South Africa shaped by citizens who demand accountability from those in power. Ironically, this comes at a time when donor funding for civil society organisations focusing on South African governance issues has drastically diminished.

Despite that, the time for important, thoughtful conversations about the past, how it will inform the future and how institutional memory can be harnessed to bring about change in 2021 is urgent.

In these times of trenchant disagreement, cul de sac politics and dangerous men and women who hold power, one wonders what the role of an Idasa-type organisation might have been. Idasa closed its doors in April 2013, but the recent release of Slabbert: Man on a mission by Albert Grundlingh is a timely reminder of what can be achieved through thoughtful exchange.

The Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (Idasa) was founded in 1987 by Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, members of the opposition, in what became known as “the last white Parliament”.

Slabbert and Boraine, sensing the impasse of the complex time that was the late ‘80s, understood the political moment better than most. Idasa sought to bring the “mutually hurting stalemate” that prevailed in South Africa to an end by building dialogue between the Afrikaner establishment and the ANC in exile and within South Africa.

Two of its most significant meetings were held in Dakar in 1987. That, in fact, signalled Idasa’s own beginnings and formed its deep roots. The 61, mostly white, Afrikaners met with then banned ANC leaders in exile to talk through the possibility of a peaceful end to the conflict in South Africa.

As Max Du Preez wrote:

“The Dakar initiative was followed up with several Idasa-organised meetings between the ANC in exile and business people, writers, students and other groups over the next three years. Talking had become fashionable.”

Soon thereafter it arranged meetings of writers, public intellectuals and artists from across the political spectrum at Victoria Falls. That convening power was always part of its organisational DNA. After 1994, Idasa’s strength lay in its ability to shift with the times and be nimble in the face of change. Always inventive – from its HIV/Aids and governance work, to its work on transparency and accountability, the Afrobarometer, local government and citizen activism – Idasa broke new and interesting ground.

For whatever its detractors said about Idasa and its liberal roots, over the years its employment record will show that it provided a home for the most diverse, talented, politically astute research staff one could probably hope to find.

What set Idasa apart was its ability to take on the thorny issues. There were probably two issues that marked the 2000s at Idasa – its work on the arms deal, and money and politics.

In 2000, Idasa recognised that the way South Africa handled the multibillion-rand arms deal investigation would be a litmus test for our democracy. At that point Idasa was the only non-governmental organisation focusing on the work of the Public Accounts Committee and its battles with an executive trying to intervene and stop an investigation into the deal. Those were difficult days of political interference and Idasa’s intervention, small though it was, was an important moment. Its report titled “Democracy and the arms deal” and released in May 2003 outlined the impact the deal and the subsequent lack of accountability had on Parliament and other democratic institutions.

In 2005, after lobbying intensely for the regulation of private donations to political parties, Idasa moved to sue the ANC and four other opposition parties to reveal their sources of private funding in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA). It lost the case as Judge Ben Griessel found, inter alia, that political parties were private bodies and therefore had no obligation to reveal their sources of funding. Looking back at the many examples of corrupt donations, one wonders whether our politics might now have looked slightly different had the decision gone the other way? But, that court record remains as a reminder to the ANC and other political parties that the corrosive impact of money on the political system could only really be dealt with within the framework of regulation and a shift in political culture.

This past week the Political Party Funding Act came into force. The issue has come full circle from those early days of Idasa’s persistent advocacy. At various points, different individuals and organisations, like My Vote Counts, picked up the transparency baton and ran the race to the finish line. It’s how democracies survive – when ordinary people do hard things.

EXPLAINED: The Political Party Funding Act

It was also a helpful reminder too that the everyday struggle to build a more accountable and transparent state belongs to us all in small and large measures. We should not become too cynical to lose the lessons of that concerted campaign.

Idasa attracted friends and enemies in equal measure and across the political divide. On any given day it walked the tightrope of being a critical ally of government – praising where necessary and offering criticism where necessary.

There were lighter moments too. Then Minister of Public Service and Administration, the fierce Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, once started a speech on ethics in the public service in Parliament, glaring up at us in the public gallery and declared, “Even Idasa would agree with me on this….”. This prompted one of our cheekier colleagues to send her a note once she had returned to her seat, signed, “Even Idasa…” Fraser-Moleketi was forced to eke out a grin.

Looking back, there were peaks and troughs and mistakes were made. Yet, the global financial crisis meant a virtual drying up of donor agency money, especially to countries like South Africa. Donors then, and still largely now, see South Africa’s challenges as self-inflicted wounds which they believe we have the wherewithal to resolve ourselves. Their interventions have been far narrower in recent years and less focused on dealing with the arc of the transition, how we got here and preserving the crucial institutional memory of those within civil society who worked closely, not only, on trying to build effective democratic institutions but also government ethics and the slow work of building a broader culture of transparency. There are reasons, for instance, why Parliament is unable to hold the executive to account effectively and that emasculation of institutions had its roots in the arms deal.

There are active citizens and progressive donors who remain committed to the values of transformative constitutionalism and this is desperately needed. South Africa needs to forge a new kind of citizen activism if we are to truly save ourselves from the corrupt who stand at the gates. Those civil society organisations fighting the proverbial good fight must be supported without reservation.

Somehow, however, we also need to make space for some of that original Idasa-type work which convened groups across different spheres of society to deal with complex problems through dialogue. Such deep reflection on citizenship and what it demands of us, even in the midst of the fierce urgency of now, seems more necessary than ever. For we are learning the hard way that democracy is a marathon and not a sprint – and its gains can very easily be lost.

Judith February headed Idasa’s Political Information and Monitoring Service between 2003-2012. This month marks eight years since the closing of Idasa.

February is a lawyer, governance specialist and Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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